BENGALURU, India — Summer hadn’t officially turned the corner yet, but the sun still bore down heavy on the morning in February when I took myself to Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, one of this city’s famous ‘lung spaces.’ It was perfect ice cream weather; the right time of the day, too, when the picnickers were still several hours away and the gardens were mostly empty, save some teenage couples cutting college to cuddle under the wide old trees and tourists checking a quick walk through the gardens off their to-do lists. The gardeners and other employees of the government-run Lalbagh were still recovering from the just-concluded annual flower show, a biannual extravaganza that brings several hundred thousand people to the 240-acre gardens. I was looking for a set of wood sculptures that had been on the local news for having been made out of centuries-old trees that fell during a storm a few months earlier.
The gardens’ famed Glass House, built with cast iron from Glasgow, was still strewn with the remnants of the flower show displays. Visitors walking through the building were still posing for selfies in front of the cast-aside parts of the big show. My interest lay in what was behind the Glass House; two women taking a break from watering the bright yellow and pink flowers that line the lawn pointed me toward the sculptures. Just behind the majestic building is a long pathway that leads up to one of the towers erected 400 years ago by Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bengaluru, on rocks that are among the oldest on earth. The path is flanked on both sides by cast iron balustrades painted green that now enclose the recent wood sculptures.
In October of last year, one of the storms that regularly lash Bengaluru felled many large trees, some of them over 200 years old. The usual practice is that the horticulture department that manages Lalbagh and other similar gardens in the city would auction or sell off the deadwood to timber merchants and wood dealers to be chopped up and carted away with no sentiment for the trees’ provenance. This time, owing to the antiquity of some of the trees, the department made a decision to get artists to turn them into sculptures that would be housed in the gardens for public display. The upcycling initiative aimed to retain and refashion a piece of Lalbagh’s illustrious history.
Commissioned in 1760 by Hyder Ali, a ruler who remains known for fiercely fighting the British along with his son Tipu Sultan, Lalbagh — literally meaning “red gardens” — was completed by the son. It was declared a botanical garden in 1856 and has thousands of very big, very old trees in hundreds of species that were introduced from elsewhere in the world by both state rulers and then later by the British. Built along the lines of Mughal gardens that were popular and in fashion in the subcontinent in the 18th century, Lalbagh’s current acreage also holds a vast lake, many rare trees, and several monuments, while also supporting extensive biodiversity.
A 250-year old mango tree, purportedly planted by Tipu Sultan himself to commemorate his birthday, was among the dozen or so old trees that fell due to last year’s rains. The gardens’ management approached the Karnataka Shilpakala Academy, the sculpture section of the state department of culture, to help put together a list of artists from across Karnataka state and elsewhere in the country to turn the mango and other trees into sculptures. Some 60 artists from Shantiniketan, Baroda, West Bengal, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and several towns in Karnataka responded to the call and worked on transforming the downed trees.
Among the sculptures are an alligator carved from a 250-year old eucalyptus tree, a chameleon hewn from the wood of the mango tree, a carved peacock complete with towering plumage, an owl, and other wildlife. There are also more fanciful works, like a tree of life, a “green city” work that shows skyscrapers facing off against a verdant side of Bengaluru, a giant reclining Buddha face, and others.
When I visited, several of the placards giving details about the works had fallen down, presumably knocked over in the bustle of the flower show. There was no information about these sculptures’ stories, which I imagine would garner much appreciation for the garden authorities. The quality of the sculptures themselves left very much to be desired and I caught myself measuring the wisdom of the venture and the reasoning behind the choice of the artists. But I suppose I risk not seeing the wood for the trees. I left heartened that precious wood that carries the lives and stories of two centuries and more wasn’t discarded for a pittance and instead continues to engage with visitors to the gardens, thus continuing to imbibe new lives and new stories.
The sculptures carved from felled trees are on long term display near the Glass House in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens (Mavalli, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India).
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